Cinematography of “House of Cards” – interview with Igor Martinovic

March 20th, 2014

With two stellar seasons under its belt, “House of Cards” is one of the best things that happened to the world of episodic TV productions in the last few years. After speaking to the production designer of the show a few months ago, it’s time to turn the attention to the show’s cinematography. Igor Martinovic has joined the second season, collaborating with different directors and shooting all thirteen episodes. In this interview Igor talks about advances in accessible digital cameras and how it affects his field of work, intertwining technical and artistic aspects of cinematography, switching from the feature world to join an existing TV show and defining the visual approach for the second half of the original story arc, the pace of working on multi-episode production and the changes his craft is undergoing in the transition from film to digital.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Igor: I am originally from Croatia where I graduated from film school. During my college years the war broke out so I ended up shooting lots of documentaries during that time. In 1993 when the war ended I moved to New York and have been living here ever since.

Kirill: Were you interested in shooting movies growing up?

Igor: Not really. I started taking photographs when I was 9-10 yrs old. My brother had a black-and-white lab at our home, and I joined him in taking photos, developing them and making black and white prints. It was a nice little hobby of ours. I had no clue that I would end up working as a cameraman one day.

At the end of the sophomore year at high school we were supposed to decide a direction in which to continue our education. I ended up in a high school class specializing in TV and film production. We watched a lot of movies, and instead of chemistry we studied photochemistry as well as optics and other related things. It was an experimental class but it gave me a direction. I realized that this could be an interesting profession.

Kirill: What did you work on when you moved to US?

Igor: I started on documentaries back in Croatia, and continued working on those after I moved to the States. My desire was always to shoot narrative and fiction. I slowly started to shoot short films and features, and it all went from there.

Kirill: In the last decade or so we’re witnessing a transition from shooting on film to shooting digital. Do you see that it’s opening doors to a wider group of people, providing a wider access to the shooting equipment and removing certain technical hurdles like buying film reels or doing lab processing?

Igor: I agree. There’s definitely democratization of the process happening right now. It is a progressive process because it brings so many new people into the field. It opens up possibilities for young and talented kids to come out and present their own vision, their own way of thinking. It is an infusion of a fresh energy.

It feeds on itself. The industry that is producing camera devices is broadening, and the base is broadening as well. They’re helping each other to develop the new visual language. In the last ten years we’ve seen an amazing change in the way people capture images. It’s been a small revolution.

It’s happening on both sides. It’s technical, but at the same time it’s a creative evolution as well. People are using these cameras in many different ways that were not even possible or technically achievable before. And it also opens up ways of seeing things, of presenting things in new perspectives.

Kirill: On the one hand some of the newcomers don’t go through the “official” academic channel of learning the history and the theory, but on the other hand they are not artificially, if you will, bound by those limitations.

Igor: There’s nothing wrong with learning your craft academically. I think that one would want to learn how things were done in the past – in the 20s, 30s, 70s… And the same applies to the theory of filmmaking – you can only benefit from it. But at the same time, if you’re talented, if you know what you want to do and how you want to do it, you absolutely should not limit yourself by having to go through those stages. If one is curious he or she can learn these things outside of the institutional framework.

There are few ways people can come to the point where they have a successful career. One is to work in the industry in supporting positions – camera assistants, gaffers – slowly developing and going up the ladder to become director of photography. The other is to finish a school and go straight to doing things as director of photography. Everyone has their own way to find themselves, their voice and their visual language that represents who they are, that shows how they see the world.

Kirill: Is there a transition point between the technical side of things – pulling focus, operating the camera, tracking lights etc – and the artistic side of things where you as the director of photography are in charge of the entire visual language, with all the nuances of setting up the lights, planning the angles, choosing lenses etc?

Igor: I think that cinematography is both. It is as much as a craft as it is about artistic expression. I don’t think there’s a clear line where one stops and the other starts. It’s also about concept, especially in the narrative film making. The point is to discover what that concept is, and apply it consistently. The concept comes from the script, from the story, and once you discover it you have a direction to follow.

Take “House of Cards” for example. Its look sprang from the idea that at the end of Season 1 the series took a turn towards film noir. I realized that the dark dealings, the cynical attitude and crime story Underwood got involved with could be represented through low-key lighting – which is a characteristic of film noir. From that moment on it was clear what direction we needed to take.

We hid our characters in shadows, in half lights, turned them into silhouettes, kept them on the edge of being too dark. Once we’ve discovered that concept, it was easy to apply it. That idea informs your way of shooting, lighting, framing. It is also technical as you have to understand and have the knowledge of the technical part of the process in order to translate that concept into technically acceptable form, but discovering those concepts is something that defines your photography.

Kirill: And for you that happens in the pre-production phase, sitting with the director for feature work or with the creators and the producers of the show for TV work.

Igor: In case of “House of Cards” the look was already established in Season 1. It was defined by David Fincher who wanted a very controlled look in terms of the framing and the camera movement. Framing was very precise, with a lot of central compositions and a lot of space around the actors. The camera doesn’t move when it doesn’t have to. Tight close up shots are used only for really important moments in the story. You don’t pan and tilt at the same time. Most of the movements are done by the dolly. All these elements were already defined in the first season.

In Season 2 we changed the lighting. In the first season, majority of scenes were lit from the top, from the ceilings and overheads. We went into a different direction. We motivated lighting by the sources, and shot it considerably darker.

Kirill: Did you have any particular references from the 40s and 50s, from the glory days of the film noir era?

Igor: Not necessarily. Sometimes film noir can call a lot of attention to itself. We wanted to base it in reality. Every source of light had its motivation – a window, a lamp, a TV screen, a computer screen. We didn’t go for complete stylization. What we did use from that period was the higher contrast – keeping characters in silhouettes, wrapping them in shadows. We did a lot of things to keep characters on the edge.

Somebody once said that the good photography is one that is always on the edge of failure. We were trying to be on that edge in terms of darkness. A lot of television tends to be really bright, offering readily consumable content to the viewer. My theory is that not fully seeing what is going on in the image is one of the most powerful elements of film-making. You can hide characters in the darkness, keep them out of focus, show them reflected in mirrors… We applied all these elements, trying to engage audience, make them participate in the experience. It’s not presented to you right away. You have to look into it to see it. Working like this is a rewarding experience for a film-maker, and hopefully it is rewarding for the audience as well.

Kirill: It also seems to be a rather rare approach to have a single cinematographer shooting the entire season. On episodic TV you usually have multiple teams of directors and cinematographers doing two-three episodes, with the production designer staying for the entire season.

Igor: That was David’s idea. He didn’t want to have two visions in the same piece.

The approach was still much the same since it’s still episodic television. You don’t have that much time to work with directors. They come in, you meet them on location scout over the weekend or late after the wrap, and there’s not much time to discuss the look. The look is designed mostly in advance. Each director brings their own sensibilities to the piece, and the way they approach the scenes and the coverage. But a lot of it is already designed.

On the set of Season 2 of “House of Cards”. Courtesy of Igor Martinovic.

Kirill: So on a certain level the directors of episodic television are more restricted.

Igor: It’s different from feature film work where you come in and completely design everything from scratch. In episodic TV there is a certain language that is already developed. A director could come in in the middle of the season, and he/she has to follow that language. Each of them do their own touches, they change things, they think of a particular coverage, work with actors… For example, there was a rule about no hand-held, no Steadicam – and in a way that already dictates how things are going to be done. If we all know that the camera moves are done in a way that the dolly takes you from a wide shot to a close-up without the operator touching the camera, that’s already established rule and cannot be changed by the director of the specific episode.

At the same time directors define the ways a scene is covered, they set the pacing and the rhythm etc. It’s a collaborative thing, but a lot of it came from David defining the elements for the first two episodes.

Kirill: And you were shooting individual episodes as blocks.

Igor: It would be two episodes at a time because most of the time we would have a director who would do two episodes back-to-back.

Kirill: How would you compare the shooting schedule on “House of Cards” to your feature work?

Igor: The shooting schedule is as in any episodic television. You’re doing 6-7 pages a day. You just work harder and try to make it as best as you can.

The quality of the crew on the show was extraordinary. We had really great camera operators – Gary Jay (who worked on many Michael Mann’s films) ; Ludovic Littee; amazing gaffer Frits De Yong… There are people helping you to achieve the vision, and they are all artists in their own right. It is really important to have a good crew to help you achieve what you’re after.

Kirill: Do you see the wave of high-quality television productions as sort of a revolt, if you will, of creators against the deluge of reality shows that has flooded the landscape in the last few years?

Igor: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought this way about this relationship. Part of it is that the film market was a little limiting as well. It started to shrink. There’s not much place where writers can express themselves, and they’ve started to look elsewhere. And reality television overpowered the landscape, appearing boring and repetitive. People are always looking, especially in these diverse market, to become something better. Netflix has shown that and now everybody is trying to follow in their footsteps. It’s the desire to create something new and different and better than what’s already out there.

Kirill: Original content on Netflix is not traditional TV in the sense that it’s being distributed on a digital platform to a variety of screen sizes and form factors, as opposed to the “regular” broadcast distribution. Do you still call it episodic TV?

Igor: When you think about it, it’s not much different from TV. In the way things are produced, it is still using the old TV model that was established long time ago. In that sense it is TV. Majority of people that worked on the show are coming from TV background. The difference is that executive producers like Scorsese, Fincher and now Soderbergh – people from the film world – come to television world and work in a way they have been working while shooting feature films. That’s where the change comes from.

On the set of Season 2 of “House of Cards”. Courtesy of Igor Martinovic.

Kirill: But then once you start shooting, is it much different from your feature work? You have roughly the same departments working together, roughly the same structure of your own crew and division of responsibility within it.

Igor: Absolutely that’s the same from the technical perspective. It’s more about having the time to pay attention to detail. That’s where the difference comes into play. And I think it’s changing, and it’s a good thing that people from film are coming in – not to say that there was no good television before.

The television is the territory of writers. It’s where they can expand their ways of telling a story. Instead of having only 90 minutes, you have 13 or 26 hours. That’s a huge change. You can develop characters, expand or contract their presence. In the feature film you can’t do that. In the TV, when you see that something doesn’t work you’re able to adjust without compromising the whole narrative. If you see something working really well, you expand it. The narrative is not as strict, and the way of telling a story is more flexible.

In the feature film world it’s all about telling your story in the most efficient and compact way that fits into 90 minutes framework. In TV you are open, you are influenced by what is happening on the set, by how certain actors are performing and interacting with each other. You see a bit of attraction between two people, and you incorporate that into the script.

Kirill: My impression was that the show was pitched to Netflix as a 2-season block with all the major plot lines already defined.

Igor: In a sense yes because it was following the narrative of the original BBC series. But a lot of things changed. You have a new actor coming in, and you see a great tension between two characters, and the next episode will definitely utilize that. Or you see some actors giving a really great performance, and you expand that role.

Major things like the outline were done in advance. But you have around 26 episodes with total of around 20 hours, and I don’t know who would be able to map all the details way in advance. It would take a really long time.

Kirill: Did you stay through post-production to do color correction or perhaps additional shooting?

Igor: I was fully involved with color correction for months after we finished shooting. We used a system called Pix during the production. The dailies were posted on Pix so everybody could see them and comment on them. We also used Pix in post. Color correction was done in LA, they would post files on Pix and I would check it and send them really detailed comments about what needs to be done. In this system you can actually draw on the image, mark places where you want to correct brightness or color, make notes on the specific frames. Color correction process took a while because we had to grade 13 episodes.

Kirill: Netflix is a streaming service and people watch the new season in a more private setting, mostly at home. Was there any equivalent of the premiere party that you have when a new feature film is introduced to the public, at a festival or a big LA / NY movie theater?

Igor: There was a premiere of the first two episodes in The Directors Guild screening room in LA. We approached the series as one would approach a feature film, and it was good to see it projected in a dark room with a few hundred people in the screening room. First two episodes were shown at the Berlin Film Festival as well.

Kirill: Now that you’ve tasted the world of episodic TV, do you see yourself mixing feature work with television work in the future?

Igor: I don’t make any distinction between documentaries, feature and television. It’s either a good project that excites you where you connect to the story, or not. But I don’t exclusively do one or another, taking a job just because it’s feature film or just because it’s TV.

Kirill: How much information do you have when you decide to join your next project?

Igor: It’s the same thing as when you watch a movie in a theater. You sit down and you read the script, and if it hits you, it hits you. If there is a story that resonates at some level with my way of seeing the world, that tells a story in a compelling way, I would just go for it. In any art form, you’re either taken by something or you’re not. That said, sometimes you make a mistake and take a job that you think will be great and it doesn’t turn out that way but at the end you always learn something.

You look at who’s directing – which is crucial. You look at how the story is going to be told, who is acting to see how the characters can be portrayed in a new and exciting ways.

Most of the time the primary cast is known. Films gets approved once the actors are attached. That’s when they start looking for director of photography, unless you have a relationship with the director where you read the script in advance. But most of the time you get the script after the actors have been attached.

Kirill: What stays with you when you look at your productions from a few years ago?

Igor: They become part of your life. In a way, camera work is a state of mind. You live it, you spend 12-14 hours a day just on the set, and then a few more waking hours thinking and talking about it. It becomes your life. It becomes part of your DNA.

You remember the moments of making the movie, but also you remember a moment a movie gets shown, the moment when you share it with the audience. That moment is crucial. That’s why we do what we do. The moment of sharing your vision with the audience fills me with joy in case of a good movie [laughs] or fear if it’s not.

Another part that really excites me is pre-production. You conceptualize the film, you create it in your mind before you start shooting it. You search of ways of presenting that story, and that’s the most exciting part of the job. When you shoot, it’s a lot of logistics, trying to be faithful to your idea and your vision. It’s great, but it’s very focused and hard work. Conceptualizing is fun cerebral process but you have to trust your guts as well.

Kirill: Does it feel that you’re relinquishing some of the control when it goes to post-production?

Igor: It’s certainly possible and it does happen. It all depends on director’s approach, and that’s different between different directors. Sometimes they only shoot things they think will be of use, and you decide those things on the set. I prefer this approach since in this way you’ll tell the story the way you want to tell it. If you shoot for the extensive coverage, there’s going to be one thing missing – your point of view.

Obviously there are other directors who approach things differently. They cover a lot, and it’s a valid way of working as well. A lot of television used to be done like that, and I think things are changing a little bit now.

Kirill: And specifically on “House of Cards” you’ve worked with the specific directors on post-production phase of each individual episode.

Igor: Yes. There’s always a pair of editor and director for two episodes. It’s fairly quick, because everything is quick in television.

Kirill: Going back to the transition to digital, do you think that your craft is losing something in the process of moving away from the physical medium of film?

Igor: You can’t lose something without gaining something else. The important thing for me is not the technical aspect. It’s the stories we’re trying to communicate through the visuals that matter. I’m sure one can use any camera from any period of time in the last hundred years and make a compelling film, a visually appropriate film. In my opinion technology is secondary.

If in five years somebody decides to film a movie with Google Glasses, I’d say lets let’s do it. Let’s find what the Google Glasses bring to the equation, let’s find whether there’s a new way of covering things. Look at the new technology – GoPro cameras per example. It’s an amazing tool. You can put a camera anywhere you want. Suddenly you can have a POV of a cheetah by attaching the Go Pro on actual animal… There are so many application of a small camera like that. The best thing of all is that it is opening new ways of expression.

To say that film is dead and that movies will suffer because of that? I think that’s very limited thinking. It will bring a new aesthetic, a new way of seeing things, and we will all benefit from it. Otherwise we will stay the same. We would probably stagnate if there’s only one way to do things. When you think about it, it’s just a means in the process of telling the story. With this new technology you can tell the same story, but in a different way. And it’s exciting to find these new ways, because that’s how progress works. You have to embrace the new and try to find what you can do with it.

Kirill: And on the set the feedback monitor loop is immediate. You don’t need to wait for the dailies to be developed and hope for the best.

Igor: That’s something that has its positive and negative sides, like any process. The beauty of shooting on film was that you had to imagine everything in advance. You had to see it in advance and then to create it. It was your imagination. Now everything is open, and it’s more about your reaction to it. You’re immediately reacting to what you see, and you’re changing it as it happens. It’s just a new way of seeing things.

That’s why I think the initial concept is really important. To know what you’re doing allows you to control it. Other people can comment on it and you’ll know if you want to listen to those or not based on how that fits into your concept.

Everyone on the set where I shoot is encouraged to suggest things, and I often ask people to get involved in the process. But at the same time you have the guidelines that you’ve set up, and you play within those rules.

Kirill: Do you have a chance to see almost-final cuts before the public release? Do you still get surprised by how it all comes together after editing and sound are done?

Igor: You do get surprised. You see certain things in your own way, and they turn out to be different for various reasons. Sometimes the way you thought about it just doesn’t work. On feature films I usually get to see the rough cut and comment on it.

On “House of Cards” it was different from episode to episode. I got to see the rough cut directed by Robin Wright because it was a very open collaboration, and we had extensive discussions while shooting and in the post.

Kirill: Was it weird having the same person directing and playing the lead role in the same episode?

Igor: On the contrary. She was very open to suggestions, very collaborative. We played things back on set so she can see herself and decide if she likes certain shot or not.

She started directing at the time where the crew was really tired – five months into shooting. She realized that and brought really good fresh energy into the set. She asked for everyone’s opinion and she was a team player. It was a fantastic experience.

Igor Martinovic and Robin Wright on the set. Courtesy of Igor Martinovic.

And here I’d like to thank Igor Martinovic for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about his art and craft. Second season of “House of Cards” is available on Netflix.